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Cold Calling: Unsolicited Calls from Brokers

Cold Calling – Know Your Rights

The telephone rings as you’re sitting down to dinner or putting the kids to bed.  A stranger is selling something.  It’s known as “cold calling.”  For many businesses, including securities firms, cold calling serves as a legitimate way to reach potential customers.  But sometimes serious trouble and financial losses await you at the other end of the line.  You may be pressured to buy a bad investment.  Or the investment might be a scam.

Whether the calls are annoying, abusive, or downright crooked, you can stop cold callers.  This Alert tells you how to stop cold calls, what your legal rights are, which red flags to avoid, and how to evaluate any investment opportunity that comes your way over the telephone.

Use the “National Do Not Call Registry” to Reduce Unwanted Cold Calls

The National Do Not Call Registry was jointly established by the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission to give Americans a way to avoid getting telemarketing calls at home.  Adding your home or cell phone number to the Registry is easy — and absolutely free.  You may register two ways:

  1. Online at donotcall.gov, as long as you have a working email address.  Shortly after you sign up, you will receive an email confirmation from donotcall.gov that contains a link you must click to complete the process.  If you do not click on this link within 72 hours, your phone number will not be registered.
     
  2. Over the telephone by calling toll-free 1-888-382-1222 from the number you wish to register. 

Your number will remain on the Registry for five years — or sooner if you decide to terminate your phone service or take your number off the Registry. 

Tip: Be sure to sign up for the National Do Not Call registry every five years.  Your registration will expire five years from the day you register, so you’ll need to place your number back in the Registry after the expiration date to limit cold calls. 

Be aware that putting your home phone or cell phone numbers on the National Do Not Call Registry will not stop all telemarketing calls.  You still may receive calls from:

  • Political organizations, charities, and telephone surveyors.

  • Companies with whom you have an established business relationship.  Under FINRA rules, an established business relationship includes making a financial transaction or having a security position, money balance or account activity with the firm within the past 18 months.  A securities representative may also call you for up to three months after you’ve contacted the firm to ask about a product or service.

  • Companies you have provided express written permission to make telephone contact.

  • If the caller is a family member, friend, or acquaintance, they also may still call you.

Understand Your Rights

When telemarketers, including people from the securities industry, call to sell you something, they must follow these important rules:

Cold Callers Must Check the “National Do Not Call Registry” — With very few exceptions, federal law requires all telemarketers, including securities firms, to search the National Do Not Call Registry every 31 days to avoid calling any numbers that are on the Registry. 

Tip:  If your number has been on the Registry for 31 days and you receive a cold call from an entity that doesn’t meet any of the exceptions to the cold calling rules, you can file a complaint at donotcall.gov or by calling toll-free 1-888-382-1222.  You’ll need to know the date of the call and the company’s name or phone number to file a complaint.

Cold Callers May Call You at Home Only Between 8:00 a.m. and 9:00 p.m. — These time restrictions for calls at home apply unless you have an established business relationship with the firm or you gave the firm express written permission to call you at other times.  Cold callers may call you at work at any time.

Cold Callers Must Say Who’s Calling and Why — Cold callers must promptly tell you:

  • Their name
  • Their firm’s name
  • Their firm’s address or telephone number
  • The purpose of the call — for example, to sell you an investment or investment-related services

Caller ID Tip: If you have Caller ID activated on your phone, you should be able to tell when a telemarketer is calling.  The Federal Communications Commission requires telemarketers to transmit Caller ID information.  Telemarketers may not block their numbers. 

Additional Responsibilities of Cold Callers — Cold callers must also:

  • Put you on their “Do Not Call” list, if you ask.  Every securities firm must keep a “do not call” list.  If you want to stop sales calls from that firm, tell the caller to put your name and telephone number on the firm’s “do not call” list.  If anyone from that firm calls you again, get the caller’s name and telephone number, note the date and time of the call, and complain to the firm’s compliance officer, the SEC, the FINRA, or your state’s securities regulator.  Further below, you’ll find information on how to make a complaint. 

Note:  Once you’re on a firm-specific do-not-call-list, neither the firm nor any of its employees are allowed to call you—even if there is an established business relationship.

  • Treat you with respect.  Cold callers can’t threaten, intimidate, or use obscene or profane language.  They can’t call you repeatedly to annoy, abuse, or harass you.

  • Get your written approval before taking money directly from your bank accounts. Before investing, you should always get answers to the questions below and written information about the investment.  If you do decide to buy from a cold caller, do not give your checking or savings account numbers to the broker over the phone.  Brokers must get your written permission -- such as your signature on a check or an authorization form -- before they can use money from your checking or savings account to fund your investments.

  • Tell you the truth.  People selling securities must tell you the truth. If they don’t, brokers violate federal and state securities laws.

What Are Signs of Trouble?

Cold calling is used legitimately to find clients for the long term.  These callers ask questions to understand your financial situation and investment goals before recommending that you buy anything.  Unfortunately, not everyone has your best financial interest at heart.  Watch for these signs of trouble:

  • High-pressure sales tactics. Aggressive cold callers speak from persuasive scripts that include retorts for your every objection.  As long as you stay on the phone, they’ll keep trying to sell.  And they won’t let you get a word in edgewise.

  • Pitches that stress “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunities. Watch out for someone who tells you about a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity, especially when the caller bases the recommendation on “inside” or “confidential” information.

  • Callers touting companies with “breakthrough technologies.”  These technologies play off of legitimate technologies, but at the same time sound just a little too good to be true.

  • Callers who refuse to send you written information about the investment.  This is a form of manipulation designed to force a quick decision.  You should be able to receive information about an investment and take as much time as you need to review it.

  • Calls from unregistered and unsupervised salespersons. Cold-calling “brokers” and their bosses may not be properly registered to sell securities—and often operate in an environment completely devoid of required supervisory procedures.  You can verify whether the caller is registered to sell securities by using FINRA BrokerCheck.

What Else Can You Do?

When cold callers use harassing, abusive sales tactics and lie to you about investment opportunities, they violate the cold calling rules and break federal and state securities laws.  Don’t let them off the hook!  

  • Report abusive cold callers.  You can file a complaint with the SEC, FINRA, your state’s securities regulator or the FTC:
  • U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission
    Investors may file a complaint electronically at the SEC Investor Complaint Center or call or fax:
    Phone: (800) 732-0330 (toll-free)
    Fax: (202) 772-9295

    FINRA
    Investors may file a complaint electronically at the FINRA Investor Complaint Center or call or fax:
    Phone: (240) 386-HELP (4357)
    Fax: (866) 397-3290

    Your State’s Securities Regulator
    Investors may file a complaint electronically at the North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA) Complaint Center or call:
    Phone:     (888) 846-2722 (toll-free)

    Federal Trade Commission
    You may file an online complaint at www.donotcall.gov or call:
    Phone: (888) 382-1222 (toll-free)
  • Tell intrusive cold callers not to call again.   If you’re annoyed by cold callers, stop them before they start their sales pitch.  Put your name on the National Do Not Call Registry—and inform the cold caller your name is on the list. Tell the caller to put you on the firm’s “do not call” list.  If anyone from that firm calls you again, complain to the firm’s compliance officer, the SEC, FINRA and your state’s securities regulator.

  • Don’t warm up to intrusive cold callers.  Cold callers often try to “warm up” potential customers with flattery or friendship.  They might try to put you off guard by chatting about your hometown or the local sports team.  Or they might suggest they’ve spoken with you before.  Don’t fall for their tactics.  And don’t feel compelled to be polite or stay on the line.  You don’t have to listen if you don’t want to, and you don’t have to tell cold callers about yourself or your finances.  Say “no, thanks” or “I’m not interested” -- and then hang up.  Don’t wait for the caller to end the call.  YOU are in control and can hang up at any time. 

What If I Want to Invest? 

Never buy an investment based simply on a telephone sales pitch.  A wise investor will always slow down, ask questions, get written information about the investment, and investigate the background of the firm and broker.  Take notes so you have a record of what the broker told you, in case you have a dispute later.  Before making a final decision and handing over your hard-earned money, take the time to investigate.  Follow these steps:

  • Check out the firm and broker. Use FINRA BrokerCheck to learn about the professional background, registration/license statuses and conduct of FINRA registered firms and their registered brokers.

  • Call your state’s securities regulator. You’ll find contact information for your state securities regulator on NASAA’s Web site.

    • Is the investment registered?

    • Is the broker licensed to do business in my state?

    • Have you received any complaints about the broker pushing the investment or the broker’s firm?  Does either have a disciplinary history?

    • Have you received any complaints about the stock, the company, or the company’s managers?

  • Ask your broker these questions:

    • Is the investment registered with the SEC and the state securities agency where I live?

    • How long has the company been in business?  Is it making money?  If so, how?  What is its product or service?  Have the people who are managing this company ever made money for investors in the past?  Will you send me the latest reports that have been filed on this company?  How can I get more information about this investment?

    • Where does the stock trade?  How can I get information about the stock’s trading price?  How easily can I sell?  What price would I get if I decide to sell immediately?

    • How does this match my investment objectives?  What is the risk that I could lose the money I invest?

    • What are the costs to buy, hold, and sell this investment?

  • Do your own research. Get as much written information about the investment as you can.  Ask for a prospectus, annual report, offering circular, and financial statements.  Commercial Web sites or your local library may have resources that provide additional information about the company, such as lawsuits, liens, or recent credit reports.  Compare the written information to what you’ve been told over the phone.  Watch out if you’re told that no written information about the company is available.  If that happens, contact the SEC, FINRA or your state’s securities regulator immediately.

  • Get a second opinion. Talk to a trusted financial advisor or your attorney.  Consider calling another firm for a second opinion on the opportunity.

  • Monitor your investment.  If you decide to invest, watch your investment closely.  Make sure your broker sends you account statements and written confirmation of all trades.  Read these documents carefully to make sure they are correct.  Be alert for any transactions you did not authorize.

Remember, there are rules governing cold calling. It pays to know them — and don’t hesitate to take action in the event the caller does not abide by them.

Additional Resources


We have provided this information as a service to investors.  It is neither a legal interpretation nor a statement of SEC policy.  If you have questions concerning the meaning or application of a particular law or rule, please consult with an attorney who specializes in securities law.